The world’s introduction to the Great Barrier Reef came with a timber-shredding crunch. Captain Cook, on his epic voyage of discovery, had found a tiny corner of a vast kingdom built by the mighty and humble polyp, and it had minced the soft belly of his great ship, the Endeavor. The year was 1770. Stretching canvas across the great rent and limping to shore for repairs saved the day.
After the repairs were completed, Cook spent a few weeks sailing north in a heightened state of equal parts fear and awe, watching the sea on the horizon ripple with enormous, and seemingly endless, fields of light-dappled corals waiting just below the surface.
Right now I’m viewing the barrier reef from a decidedly safer vantage: hanging from the open door of an Aviation Dreams helicopter in the Whitsunday Islands. Spread across the horizon below me, long striations of the Hook and Hardy Reefs intermingle with smaller dots of coral, all sovereign empires built by the mad whims and rhythms of light, water and time. Despite the unruly design, I see hundreds of lovely cities rising from the seafloor, full of the complexities of urban life, of living and dying, of color and motion, of daily toil.
I wish I could explore each and every coral turret, bommie and canyon that unfolds before me. The sight calls to my mind an Australian aboriginal belief called the Dreaming. It’s a place of beginnings and endings, all created in the “time before time.” The Great Barrier Dreaming, as I imagine it, began with the first polyp, and its stories, secrets and progeny have since spread 1,200 miles along the coast, from the Eastern Fields in the north to Heron Island in the south. In between are more than 2,800 reefs and 940 islands, 90 percent of which remain unexplored.
In the course of several trips to Australia, I’ve personally managed to set eyes on all of about 20 of these sites. Even large measures of hyperbole can’t encompass this massive life form. I am viewing, all at once, the beginnings and the future of one of the most complex systems of life on the globe. I try to imagine where that first polyp emerged on the seafloor, where the Dreaming began. But like other places built as much on myth as on reality, most of what I see spread before me exists, grows, lives and dies incognito, never feeling the gaze of man.
And it will no longer feel my gaze on this day.
“There’s a bit of rain headed our way, mate,” says the pilot, beckoning me to settle back into my seat.
The Australians, it should be noted, have a keen sense of understatement. So when the pilot tells me there’s “a bit of rain headed our way, mate,” my stomach tightens in anticipation of the great deluge. Sure enough, when I turn my head I see a dark, imposing shadow and an impenetrable curtain of rain racing across the water’s surface. I watch as the famous heart-shaped reef and the gold and blue coral fields are overrun by this gloomy cloak and their luster turned quickly to an iron gray. We race the front, buffeted by the winds. By the time we touch down on Hamilton Island in the usually idyllic Whitsundays, where I’d stopped on my way north to Cairns, the winter dry season has turned decidedly wet.
“Looks like you might have a bit of weather for the next few days. Never seen it like this, at least not this time of year, mate.” He pauses, measuring my response to his words. My initial thought is that this is the first of 15 days I have in Oz, as Australia has become popularly known.
“No worries, though,” the pilot assures me as he crumples the printout of the weather forecast he holds in his hand. “You’ll be 300 kilometers from here soon enough, anyway. Well … cheers, then.”
Two understatements in a row, I think. Oh, no.
I arrived in Cairns in a downpour and checked into the elegant Shangri-La Hotel, which overlooks the harbor. Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef — the town has more dive shops than bars. More dive shops than libraries. More dive shops than McDonald’s (yes, even that).
Early the next morning, I was picked up by the Spirit of Freedom’s transfer bus and whisked off to the domestic airport for transport to Lizard Island so I could rendezvous with the live-aboard. The luxurious 125-foot Spirit of Freedom operates both seven- and four-day itineraries. The seven-day trip leaves from Cairns and takes divers to top sites on the Ribbon Reefs, which are along the northern end of the barrier reef on the way to Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea. Divers who opt for the four-day Osprey trip are flown to Lizard to start their adventure.
GET IN THE WATER NOW!
Since Lizard Island is close to the most well-known site on the Great Barrier Reef — Cod Hole on Ribbon Reef #10 — we were in the water within about two hours of boarding, before we’d even had a chance to read all of each other’s name tags and figure out how to use the shipboard toilets.
Cod Hole is an entire coral nation. The massive potato cods are, of course, hard to miss, but so are the schools of sweetlips, loads of flittery clownfish, passing green sea turtles and napping blacktip reef sharks. The competition for space extends well beyond the obvious, though. Tiger blennies, Moorish idols, blue-spotted lagoon rays, wobbegongs and many more of the barrier reef’s staggering estimated 2,000 species of fish seem to have taken a fancy to the wonderfully clear waters and bommies at this site.
After two dives, though, we were off on the long crossing to one of diving’s most famous bits of coral, Osprey Reef, and it was time for that most-heralded of rituals on live-aboards: overeating. Rob, although officially titled “cook,” was a galley magician, a true chef; he loaded the tables with such incredible food that we were all guaranteed to gain weight. But no one on the boat seemed to care — we all dug in to the “tucker” as if we’d missed a week of meals.
Just about the time dessert arrived, the Spirit of Freedom weighed anchor and we all headed to our large cabins for a night spent dwelling in our own version of the Great Barrier Dreaming.
THE MELTING POT
In the 18th century, there was a desire espoused by many great American thinkers and leaders — such as Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, George Washington and (my favorite) John Paul Jones — to become citizens of the world. Kind of like John Lennon’s Imagine, Colonial-style. In more modern times, the notion of being a citizen of the world represents an ideal of a global vision — an ideal that ripples through the nomadic expat dive world. Among dive travelers, wanderlust runs rampant, and the concept of goodbye, even after a short acquaintance, is almost foreign. And if there’s a central core for this global world, it’s Australia.
Looking around the Spirit of Freedom I saw architects from Ireland, teachers from Oregon, bankers and divemasters from England, and Scottish, Japanese, Canadian and Norwegian divers from all walks of life — not to mention an Aussie or two. There was an entire United Nations on the dive boat, all brought together with one common goal: to explore the world’s last real frontier. And that’s exactly what Osprey Reef felt like when we got there.
Osprey Reef sits in the middle of nowhere. Its highest point is just inches above the surface of the Coral Sea. The closest piece of land, Lizard Island, is more than 100 miles away. The ocean barely pauses as it passes over this coral rampart. Underwater, though, it’s a gathering place and waypoint for everything that passes through this part of the world.
On our first dive, at Around the Bend, we descended into an improbable wonderland. Thick forests of red and yellow soft coral trees lined a canyon that our group passed through. When we slipped over a coral outcropping at 120 feet, a giant manta ray was hovering in the current as a phalanx of cleaning fish crawled over its elegant wings and into its gill slits and mouth. On the wall that slipped off into the deep blue under the manta, whitetip reef sharks meandered past. The wall was so thick with sea fans and soft corals that it seemed impossible to accommodate even one more.
As we headed back to shallow water, several hammerheads circled a lucky cluster of our group. During the safety stop at the bottom of the mooring line I slowed down enough to watch as fire gobies hovered above their homes in the coral rubble, long-finned and bluestreak gobies darted about, sixbar wrasse and orange-lined triggerfish lit up the reef with their wild colors and an octopus played hide-and-seek.
The Aussie divemasters called it “a bit of a slow day.” Finally, an understatement I could appreciate. I was beginning to understand that the only way to comprehend the vastness encompassed by both the Great Barrier Reef and Australia was to take it in small, easily digestible bits.
The next morning, just as we were all waking up, the captain spotted something he’d never seen in 25 years of cruising these waters: a pod of orcas. We all lined the rail watching the whales breach and dive under the boat. “If you write this,” said the captain, “you absolutely must say this never happens. Otherwise, guests will show up asking for the orcas. Could be a bit of a disappointment.”
We were scheduled to do the shark-feed dive that day at North Horn. Among shark aficionados it’s a place of worship, a temple of the requin. Normally, the site is packed with whitetip and gray reef sharks, but when we got in the water, there were only about 40 or 50 of them lolling about, a “disappointing” number that the captain attributed to the presence of the orcas. Although the divemasters seemed genuinely put off by the “low” turnout, not a diver among us knew the difference, and the water still seemed filled to its very edges with eager sharks. When the fish parts were released, the sharks went wild, as did several of the resident potato cod — they muscled in, shoved and pushed the sharks aside to get their share. It was obvious from their girth that they’ve had no problem pushing around their toothy cousins. For about 10 minutes, we could hear the crunch of teeth on fish heads. Afterward the divers searched the bottom for sharks’ teeth, a keepsake for the kids.
After our edge-of-the-earth experience at Osprey, we overnighted to the Ribbon Reefs, right on the edge of the continental shelf.
Almost all of the dive briefings in this part of the world include the term “world- famous,” and our first dive in the Ribbons was at “world-famous Steve’s Bommie.” Like so much on this trip, “world-famous” turned out to be an understatement here, too.
Steve’s Bommie crawls with marine life. Schools of jacks and snapper formed like silvery-blue and gold rain clouds around the bommie. Green sea turtles napped along the bottom; that’s the best place to begin your dive before winding your way up. This coral citadel can easily be circumnavigated several times during a dive, and the best parts are in the shallow bits. Lu, one of the divemasters, found a leaf scorpionfish hiding in its coral redoubt. All around the top of the bommie, fairy basslets and scalefin anthias swirled around like a yellow and orange snowstorm. Clown triggerfish and spotted boxfish added to the color parade. This is the place to go slow — I often just stopped at a spot and waited until the local denizens became curious and popped around to check me out.
Our last dive, at Flare Point, brought out the local superstars. Tom, perhaps the luckiest divemaster on the boat, found mating cuttlefish on the first dive. A minke whale (June/July is the season for them) passed the boat during the dive, and after I’d had my fill of the cuttlefish (meaning that my computer was beeping to tell me my dive was over), I was accompanied back to the boat by a massive green sea turtle that just seemed to want the company. We swam side by side all the way to the boat, then the ancient mariner rose for air and slipped off into the blue after a brief last glance in my direction. It was a fitting end for a trip to a place I never grow weary of exploring.
Luckily, though, this was only the first leg of my trip. I was about to go to a place few divers make it to: the southernmost coral reef in the world, off Lord Howe Island. Like Osprey, it’s an isolated outpost, one that sits all by its lonesome about 350 miles from Sydney. It’s the last spot on earth that the warm water of the East Australian Current touches.
THE SOUTHERNMOST CORAL REEF
I’d been diving for a couple of decades before I’d even heard of Lord Howe Island. I ran across an old National Geographic article a few years back and vividly remember the underwater images taken by David Doubilet. There were double-headed wrasse, an odd-looking buck-toothed fish that I’d never heard of, reefs swarming with colorful moon and green-blocked wrasse, and a black anemonefish that exists only in these waters. And the colors — vivid greens, yellows, blues, reds, pinks, rich browns and even lustrous grays — popped off the reefs. It was one of those moments that made me realize just how much there is to experience on this blue earth. What I didn’t realize from the images is that they only hinted at the possibilities of Lord Howe.
Some things you know even before you see them, and Lord Howe was like that for me. As soon as the plane landed, I knew the island would not disappoint. The water surrounding it was vibrant, a kind of blue that seems to exist only in Windex bottles. The island itself, an odd mix of manicured lawns and wild forest, is a major sanctuary for sea and land birds. The tops of its volcanic peaks, Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird, are covered with nesting terns, petrels and masked boobies. I checked into the exquisite Capella Lodge, which offers views of Lidgbird, Gower and one of the loveliest lagoons in the world, and gathered my dive gear.
I wanted to sit back and enjoy the view from the lodge, but I had only a short time on the island. And as it turned out, we were only able to dive one site because of the high winds. I hooked up with Brian Busteed of PADI dive shop Howea Divers, and we headed to Ned’s Beach. (I asked numerous people, but no one seemed to know who Ned was and why this beach was named after him. The island was discovered back in 1788, but I thought for sure that some local would remember Ned.) Despite being voted the best beach in Australia in 2005, it was empty except for a few saltwater ducks.
We waded in, and as soon as I put my face in the water I didn’t want the experience to end. The shallow coral gardens were literally covered with McCulloch’s anemonefish, which are endemic to Lord Howe. A green sea turtle slipped over the reef and wound its way through light beams playing at the surface. Schools of yellowtail kingfish, mullets and silver drums parted to let us pass. These fish stay in the shallows near Ned’s Beach because a few years back an old man started bringing food scraps and tossing them into the water. The fish caught on, and now it’s one of the island’s major sources of entertainment (second only to the local lawn bowling club).
Brian finned on through a cut in the reef, and as he did a small Galapagos shark appeared at the reef’s edge, then scurried out of view. Along the way, we saw rare juvenile split-head wrasse, flatworms and endemic Lord Howe morays with their haunted yellow eyes. We were accompanied by a couple of banded scaleyfins, also called bookfish. One of them nipped at my legs like a pesky horsefly for about 50 yards — not very bookish if you ask me.
We worked our way out to a sandy basin that bottomed out at 25 feet. Here, in the cracks and crevices, was another green sea turtle, three-stripe butterflyfish and a large spangled emperor. The hard and soft corals were wonderfully healthy. Our one dive turned into four, even though the water, at 72ºF, was a bit chilly. I discovered a plethora of juvenile McCulloch’s anemonefish, eels and loads of critters that have benefited from the island’s splendid isolation.
We’d planned on going to Ball’s Pyramid, a renowned rock formation about 15 miles off the main island, or to nearby Admiralties or Malabar, but we were grounded by the weather. I was happy returning to Ned’s Beach — I felt four dives just barely touched on its possibilities. Brian assured me that the diving got “much, much better out a bit.” I wondered out loud why more people don’t beat a path to this diver’s haven. Though my trip to this lovely outpost was too short, it rose to the top of my must-do (again) list.
I asked Brian about the kind of diver who makes it out to Lord Howe, and he said it was “90 percent Australian, very few Americans.” Brian also said that he’s still exploring the possibilities of Lord Howe, which became a world heritage site in 1992. And with only 400 visitors allowed at any one time, it’s likely to stay pristine while you save your pennies to get there, and it’s not likely to be crowded when you arrive. During the few days I spent on the island, I was the only diver besides Brian.
The next day Ian Hutton, the pre-eminent expert on Lord Howe’s flora and fauna, took me on a hike through the temperate rain forest. Birds are Ian’s specialty, and I learned and saw more during that few hours than I’d ever have been able to on my own. We were followed by currawongs and found a rare Lord Howe woodhen. To find these protected land birds, you clap your hands loudly. The woodhens react to the noise as if you’re an intruder and squawk fiercely to warn you off. Then they wander out and try to stare you down with their bright red eyes before scampering back into the bush.
Lord Howe has been called Australia’s most beautiful island, and I’d be hard-pressed to argue. It almost doesn’t seem real, and even the longtime residents still sense that bit of magic. But, truth is, I’m also hard-pressed to find a place more appealing than Australia — even in the rain.
After a while the weather I’d happened upon was becoming funny. I’d arrived in Australia during the dry season. I’d been here before during this time of year, and all I’d seen and known of the Australian winter was light fluffy clouds and calm seas. Clear water. Little wind. I even tried saying it out loud once during the trip. I walked out on the balcony of the Shangri-La in Cairns and spoke to the sky: “Light fluffy clouds and calm seas. Clear water. Little wind.” I’d apparently been reading too much Harry Potter, since I thought that just such an incantation was the only thing necessary to change the weather.
“I’ve never seen it like this,” everyone said in that cheerful Australian manner. I turned on the TV and, sure enough, even weathermen were saying it was unheard-of. A massive high-pressure system had settled over Queensland and, like me on all my adventures in this remarkable country, it was reluctant to move on. Some things are clearly beyond my control. But despite the rain, the Australians reveled in a keenness for life that is always contagious and inspiring. Swept right along with them, so did I — and soon the rain was meaningless.
I sadly boarded the plane home, gripped by what has become a familiar yearning to simply find a way to stay in this always surprising and remarkable country.
Special thanks to the Spirit of Freedom (spiritoffreedom.com.au); Tourism Queensland (destinationqueensland.com); Australia Tourism (australia.com); Qantas Airways (qantas
.com); and the Shangri-La Hotel, Cairns (shangri-la.com/cairns).
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